DEARBORN, Mich. -- Ford Motor Co.'s fleet customers will be offered an an optional driver-side airbag for $815 on Ford Tempo and Mercury Topaz compact models as part of a company test of the safety devices.
The No. 2 automaker said Thursday it hopes to sell at least 5,000 airbag-equipped cars through fleet sales to large businesses, corporations and state and local governments. The autos should be available in early 1985.
Ford already has a contract to build 5,000 airbag-equipped Tempos for the federal government's General Services Administration, to be delivered at the end of the year.
Ford said the airbags are being offered only to fleet customers to find out how well the system works. Fleets generally maintain extensive records on their cars, making them relatively easy to monitor.
'With this experience, Ford will consider making a supplemental driver-side airbag generally available as an option on future Tempo and Topaz models,' said Helen O. Petrauskas, Ford vice president of environmental and safety engineering.
The airbag is stored inside a steering wheel compartment, and is inflated by a set of sensors under the hood. Ford officials say there is little chance of an airbag inflating by accident.
Petrauskas said polls show one-third of Americans have questions about the safety of airbags -- questions the fleet cars may dispel.
The $815 cost of the option does not cover Ford's out-of-pocket costs for the bags, said Petrauskas, who would not give the actual cost of the option.
The Ford executive said the airbag system is designed to supplement seatbelt systems. The airbag protects in head-on crashes but is of little help in sideswipes, rollovers or other accidents.
Petrauskas said the firm is not yet offering airbags on the passenger side because a device has not yet been developed to give passengers protection equal to that of the steering wheel system.
The Transportation Department has ordered automakers to equip at least 10 percent of their cars with airbags or automatic seatbelts by the 1987 model year.
The percentage will rise in the following years. All cars must be equipped by 1990, unless at least 34 states pass mandatory seatbelt laws by that time. So far, only New York has approved such a measure.
Petrauskas said the fleet cars are not included in the 10 percent, although Ford is petitioning the government to change that ruling.
General Motors Corp. at one time offered airbags as an option on its cars but discontinued them several years ago. Mercedes-Benz is the only firm now offering airbags as an option.